Saturday, March 27, 2010

Report from … California Preview Tasting – March 23, 2010

On April 19, 2010 the Californians will be turning Toronto into Napa-, Sonoma-, Carneros-, Paso Robles-, (and every other AVA in between) North.  Tonight, a bunch of us writer types were invited to get a small sampling of the more than 400 wines that will be poured that day.  Broken down into 7 flights, some as small as 4 wines, others as big as 10, ranging from Chardonnay to a Port-style wine called “Starboard”; 58 wines were poured in total.  Below I break ‘em down by favourites in their respective flights.

Flight A – Chardonnay (9 wines poured)
I like that I am consistent in this category.  2 years ago I liked the same wine I liked tonight, last year it was not as good, but I see they are back to form with their 2008 edition.  I’m talking about the Wente Vineyards 2008 Morning Fog Chardonnay ($16.95 – LCBO).  I liked the fruit character here; led by melon with some pear and apple as backup … this one has more fruit than wood and I like that in my Chardonnay (***½). The rest of the flight, unfortunately, did not impress.

Flight B – Pinot Noir (8 wines poured)
Good thing Pinot Noir came along to rescue the tasting from its rather boring beginning.  This was a very strong category, but you have got to like Cali-Pinot, which is more fruit than earth.  Favourites here were the Sandford 2007 St. Rita Hills Pinot Noir ($43.95 – Vintages August 2010) – big cherry nose with a touch of raspberry and strawberry, which all follows pleasantly onto the palate; there’s good structure with a nice balance of tannins and acidity. (****)
The Laird Family Estate 2008 Pinot Noir (N/A in Ontario) was also quite pleasant with black cherry throughout, there was also the nice tannins and spice.

Flight C + D – Zinfandels (7 in C plus 4 in D – total of 11 wines)
Another powerful flight, and I’m not just talking alcohol levels here, these wines showed some really good finesse on the palate, especially the 4 wines in flight D.  This is California’s heritage grape, and the wines I am talking about are not the pink sweeties; when I say Zinfandel I mean the big, bold reds that are fruit driven wines with plenty of alcohol.  Selections here include the Cline Cellars 2008 Ancient Vines Zinfandel, which I reviewed for the Vintages release of May 1, 2010 – and is one of my best value selections – a 5-star, 15% alcohol brute that’s actually a beauty.  E & J Gallo 2007 Rancho Zabaco Heritage Vines Zinfandel ($19.95 – Vintages), another Vintages recommendation (March 20, 2010).  Also part of the first 7 wines was the Barra of Mendocino 2004 Zinfandel ($23.75 – Private Order) – this one showed the complexity of an older Zin: cherry, plum, vanilla with good acid bite and some nice spice and tannins mixed in with that fruit (****).

Flight D showed four very good Zins by such names as C.G. Di Arie Vineyard (2006 Zinfandel) – ****½; Titus Vineyards (2007 Zinfandel) – ****; Peter Franus Wine Company (2007 Zinfandel) – ****½; and Seghesio Family Vineyards (2008 Zinfandel) – **** … all ratings are out of 5.

Flight E + F – Cabernet Sauvignon (10 in both flights for a total of 2 wines)
This was a rather disappointing couple of flights.  These 20 Cabs started to taste alike after while, it’s as if there’s a formula that everyone is now using to create the “quintessential” California Cab, which means they are lacking in diversity.  There were some good ones that garnered 4-star ratings and seemed to rise above the crowds sameness:  St. Clement Vineyards 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon ($49.95 – Vintages); Kenwood Vineyards 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon ($22.95 – coming in August to Vintages); Clos La Chance Wines 2006 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon (N/A in Ontario); and Oakville Ranch 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon ($69.95).

Flight G – “Other Reds” (8 wines poured)
This was the “oddball” group, included here was a Merlot, a Malbec, a Cabernet Franc and a Syrah; but the standouts here were the ones you probably wouldn’t expect.  A Cellar Full of Noise 2006 Tempranillo (N/A in Ontario) was very impressive with sweet blackberry, chocolate, raspberry and strawberry, with a rather restrained 12.5% alcohol (**** ½).  On the other hand, the J. Lohr Winery 2007 Town Road Petite Sirah ($32.95 – Private Order) was a bruiser of a wine, weighing in at 14.9% alcohol:  plum, vanilla, white pepper and chocolate filled the mouth (****).  Finally, Quady Winery 1996 Vintage Starboard ($23.00 – Private Order) was a Port-like affair with sweet cherry, chocolate and spice (****); it was a nice way to end the evening and gear us all up for what lies ahead at this year’s California Wine Fair taking place April 19, 2010 at the Royal York.

Report from … Wine Writers’ Circle of Canada Bonus Tasting – March 22, 2010

Every month, or two, the Wine Writers’ Circle is suppose to get together for a tasting of wines that have been sent in. This month there were too many wine and not enough time during the early March meeting (which I missed because I was out of town); but I got in on this tail-end tasting, which featured the wines that did not get opened earlier this month; turned out to be about 35 wines, within this tasting there were some surprises, some good values and some excellent wines, one or two are available now while the others will be coming your way fairly soon.

Great Value Wines …
Chile continues its winning ways with two wines in this category, which will be coming to the LCBO’s general list this “summer” (no firm date given) and both are from the same company.  The San Pedro 2008 35 South Sauvignon Blanc ($11.95) has a very fruity nose and good palate, not too much acidity here so it’s gulpable and sippable (whichever strikes you as the way you want to drink it) – this is a good wine to enjoy for all you patio sitters and sippers (***½).  The other wine from this producer is the San Pedro 2008 35 South Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva ($11.95) another bargain for under twelve-bucks.  This one’s a real crowd pleaser, with a minty raspberry nose, lush red berry fruit and mint in the mouth … nice smooth fruity finish makes this one a fun wine for summer sipping, especially around the BBQ (****).  Another really good value wine comes to us from Italy, and is one for folks who like a little more oomph in their wines, but still rely on fruit flavours for the palatal fun.  Farnese 2008 Negroamaro ($8.95 – available now) from the Puglia region, is the kind of wine that should fly off LCBO shelves, a la FuZion.  Dark fruits like black raspberry, smooth tannin structure, full bodied mouth feel – this one is absolutely a super value (****) … I found myself spending an evening with a bottle quite recently, and enjoyed our hour together very much.

Good Wines at a Good Price …
Blackstone 2007 Merlot – Winemaker’s Select ($15.95 - #606327 – Vintages) – creamy blackberry smoothness; very easy drinking, this will satisfy your California Merlot Jones. (***½)
Angus the Bull 2007 Shiraz ($18.95 – General List - #132936) – a big red and black fruit bomb from down under; this is one your friends, family and loved ones will like when they come over to congregate around the grill. (***½)
Cusumano 2008 Nero d’Avola ($9.95 – General List - #143164) – this should be a best buy selection but it might be too rustic for the masses, big black fruit, cocoa, black raspberry and a boat load of tannins; I can see pouring this one with a steak on the side. (***½)

Something for Dessert …
Not a fan of Sherry? Get your head out of the sand, not all Sherries are created equal, and not all are that dry Fino stuff grandma used to drink.  Check out Gonzalez Byass Solera 1847 Oloroso Dulce ($16.95 – Vintages May 29, 2010).  I buy a few bottles of this every year and every year I have to buy a few bottles, it’s just that good.  I serve it as a dessert and people are both surprised and impressed, and did I mention they go ga-ga for it.  The nose is nutty and caramely with a hint of caramelized orange.  The palate is sweet and lovely with great balancing acidity that keeps that sweetness in check (****½).  Try it the next time you have people over for dinner, just pour it, but for God sake don’t tell them what it is – you’ll see a lot of surprised looks on faces and you’ll find you have emptied the bottle at the end of the night as people will most definitely ask for seconds.

Table Wine of the Tasting …
I really enjoyed the Sherry (above), but sweeties find it easy to please, table wine has it a little harder; but the wine I enjoyed most was from right here in Ontario made by Jackson-Triggs, their single vineyard offering:  2007 Delaine Vineyard Cabernet-Merlot – you can read the full review here.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Report from … Wine Shop in Florida, or is it a Bar? – March 10, 2010

I think I am in love, not with a person, with a wine store.  “We’re not a wine store,” says the girl behind the counter, “we’re classified as a bar.”  The words spill out of her mouth fast and she is very bubbly in her mannerisms – she then apologizes for her rapid-fire speech, blaming the coffee and a little bit of over-tiredness.  But she’s enthusiastic about the place, and after a brief look around, so am I.

I find myself in Winter Park, Florida (just north of Orlando) at a place called The Wine Room on Park Avenue, whose tagline is “By the Glass.  Buy the Bottle”.  The Wine Room has installed a number of ‘Enomatic Wine Serving Systems’, which allow a bottle to be stored in a stand up position with a hose inserted, as wine is emptied from the bottle it is replaced with an inert gas to keep the wine fresh for a period of up to 30 days. 

Your visit starts when The Wine Room issues you a credit card style chip card, a cost of $3, which you can fill up in $5 increments (I got $20 worth).  You then circulate through “the bar”, sliding your card in the appropriate slot(s) (a digital screen tells you how many dollars are left when you insert your card), then you select the wine you want to try or drink.  I would say there are well over 70 wines to choose from and hundreds to buy.  Bottles on for sampling change every 30 days or so, some popular wines are permanently on for tasting while about 50% of the samplers are changed   Drink sizes range from 1, 2½ and 5 ounce servings from line-up machines, while circular ones are programmed for a 1 oz pour, though you can pour as many as you like, depending on the balance on your chip card.  Prices per sample/pour depend on the price of the bottle.  An ounce of Ridge Lytton Springs Zinfandel was $3.50 for a one-ounce squirt while an Antinori Tignanello was $20 for the same amount.  Each and every bottle, whether samplable or not, was for sale.

Enhancing your experience were the cushy lounge chairs, bar stools, low rider coffee table and high-stand tables.  There was also a cheese display at the back and a bar, complete with stools where you could order a beer or spirit-based drink (these are cash purchases only, the chip card is only for wine).

I took a variety of pictures but the place has to be experienced to be believed.  This is the kind of place I would love to have in Ontario.  Big thanks to Archie Hood for advising me to visit.

Report from … Wine Stop in Florida – March 9, 2010

My soon-to-be in-laws winter down in Florida, so when we arrived on Sunday they told us they’d like to take us on a winery tour of-sorts.  On Tuesday morning we set out to discover one winery in the area.  We had a choice of three (the winery map of Florida I had said there were 16 scattered throughout the state):  Homosassa Springs, Clermont or Tampa … my first choice was closed on Tuesdays so we traveled to the one in Clermont: Lakeridge Winery & Vineyards – billed as being Florida’s biggest.

My in-laws aren’t oenophiles, nor do they visit wineries all that often (if ever), so they wanted to poke around and taste some of the local wines.  The gentleman who greeted us at the door (Gino) was pushy about going on a tour (we must have declined 3 or 4 times).  I finally stumbled upon a woman (I did not catch her name) who offered to give us a little tasting and provide me with some information about Lakeridge and the grape growing in Florida.

First off, Lakeridge’s production is based on the Muscadine grape, “a grape native to the south,” we are told.  The grape is large and for the most part produces sweet wines.  “We don’t grow typical European vines because our soil eats away at the root system,” that’s a very odd statement considering from what I know about Floridian typography (which is very little); my father-in-law, who keeps this kind of info in his noggin said that Florida is built on a limestone-base; limestone is highly sought after for grape growing.  This is very interesting.  The three varieties of Muscadine grown here are Carlos (bronze grape), Welder (green grape) and Red Noble (Purple grape).

We plow through a number of wines (9 to be exact).  The ‘Cuvee Noir Reserve’ could best be described as a light red, kind of a cross between Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc in taste.  Cuvee Blanc, another wine that defies its own description, could best be described as: hints of Sauvignon Blanc mixed with Vidal.  “Chablis”, a wine which suggests the presence of Chardonnay, is a Muscadine-based white that smells of grape seeds and tastes like grape juice – red Welch’s grape juice.

‘Southern Red’ is made with Red Noble Muscadine, it smells like Concord grapes and although the taste is sweet, it has a slightly bitterish finish – this is Lakeridge’s top selling wine.  The ‘Southern White’ was very strongly grapey in both smell and flavour.

We were also offered up a wine made with a hybrid grape that the Lakeridge-lady told me was developed by their winemaker, called a Blanc du Bois (White of Wood), I’m going to have to look that piece of info up somewhere.  This is a limited 144 case production wine.

There were three wines I can recommend without hesitation.  Their award winning ‘Pink Crescendo’ ($16.99) “methode Chaampenoise” bubbly made with the Carlos Muscadine grape.  It spends 1½ to 2 years on lees in bottle … it’s a sweet bubbly with cherry, raspberry, watermelon and bubbegum nuances.  This would be a fun, hot weather fizz – good for Florida, imagine that.

The other two wines were a Cream Sherry and a Port – both tasted exactly like they were suppose to; the Port was especially pleasing.  Primarily made with the Red Noble Muscadine which spends a minimum of 4 years in barrel (and the only wine they make that sees wood) it is housed at their sister winery in St. Augustine (further north) – it is called San Sebastian Port ($19.95) and comes in a funky shaped bottle.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Report from … One Stop in Kentucky – March 5, 2010

I have heard of Kentucky bluegrass, Kentucky Woman, Kentucky Fried Chicken, the Kentucky Derby and even Kentucky bourbon, but Kentucky wine?  Now that was a total mystery to me.  Which is why on our way down to Florida I got my one and only chance to try the stuff at Talon Winery in Lexington.

Located approximately 11 miles off of I-75 on a sprawling ranch, of which 5-acres of vines are planted to 7 grape varieties:  Traminette, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Cayuga White, Vidal, Catawba and Chambourcin; I was shocked to learn from Lori Baumgardner, daughter of the owner, that a weed of a grape like Chardonnay “is hard to grow in Kentucky”.  I also learned that if the bottle says “Kentucky Wine” – an odd turn of phrase for any wine lover as something not heard very often – that the grapes were sourced from Kentucky (at least 75% of them anyway), while “American Wine” on the label meant it was fruit sourced from outside the state.

The winery’s name comes from a fusion of Lori’s mom and step dad’s last names, Allen and Tackett, who liked the sound of Tallen but then also liked the reference to the power of the eagle’s talon imagery it invoked, hence Talon.

More interesting was the story of the house that housed the tasting room and the estate.  It once belonged to Isaac Shelby, who was the first governor of Kentucky; the house was built for his daughter in the 1790’s around the time George Washington was in his first term as president.  Another interesting fact about the house is that it was built in what was then called Virginia, which later became part of Kentucky; my fiancĂ©e, Erica, pointed out that it’s the only house she’s ever been in that “has been in two states but has never been moved.”

The vines were planted in 2000 with the help of the University of Kentucky (Go Wildcats), and wine started to come out for sale with the 2004 vintage.

I was not interested in the “American Wines”, as this would be my one and only chance to try Kentucky wine (on this trip), I had to make it count, so I tried 4 wines labeled as “Kentucky Wine”.  The 2006 Traminette was floral with orange blossom and a white pepper finish.  The label was mouth-painted by a family friend with cerebral palsy, a heart-warming story because the lady was given 18 years to live and instead lived well into her 50’s.  The family decided to honour her memory with the label.

I also tried the 2005 Monarch (Cabernet Franc), a black fruited, leathery and tobacco leaf number from what Lori described as a difficult vintage with plenty of crop damage, “we get something like that every 5 years or so around here,” she told me.  Since I hadn’t tried a wine made from Catawba in a while (since my last visit to New York State), I decided I had to sip on the Catawba/Concord blend called Afterglow – slightly sweet and grapy.  But the wine that blew my mind (and eventually bought a bottle of) was the 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon ($21.95), aged 1 year in, what else, Kentucky oak barrels.  Lots of red fruit in this one, like cherry and strawberry backed up by cassis.  The palate had a slight spice to it, but showed mainly strawberries and cherries.  Soft and easy drinking with a nice red-fruited finish, simply lovely and a much try.